By Elyse Warren
In the Smithsonian article, “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” Jared Keller wrestles with the shadows of America’s riddled past with racism after a visit to Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum. The museum, which opened in December of 2014, marks the first museum in the nation to be recognized as a slave museum. The museum pays homage and bears witness to the history of slavery and crimes against humanity committed against the slaves who were forced into labor at the former indigo, sugar, and cotton plantation.
The memorialization and pedagogical design of the tours conducted at the museum break from the confines of the conventional history lesson given in the classroom or at other plantations. The focus is placed on providing the visitor the opportunity to understand the slave experience and remove, as Keller notes, the veil of the Gone With The Wind view of America’s Southern plantations. The experience disillusions the visitor from the romanticism associated with the grandeur of the planation homes and provides a narrative that can not only educate, but act as a change agent within the visitor when they conclude their experience.
This thoughtful design mirrors the experience of visiting sites of atrocities committed during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, specifically the renowned pedagogy and reconciliation constructed through Germany and Poland’s memorialization of the Holocaust. Thanks to the generous support of the Jewish Federation and Dr. Barry and Mrs. Anne Stein, I participated in the March of the Living (MOL) in 2011 with five other high school students from Sarasota and witnessed the concentration camps in Poland and traveled to Israel. Reflecting on the experience, I can still vividly remember the sensory details of visiting the concentration camps and ghettos in Poland. The stench of the rotting wood of the barracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the scraped walls of the cattle car at the Lodz Ghetto, and the cold, sterile, space of the gas chambers at Majdonek that were stained with an effervescent turquoise blue from the Zyklon B chemicals. All the details wove together the prisoner experience in the concentration camps into the fabric of Holocaust memorialization and memory.
In particular, visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps manifested a poignant experience of walking through endless barracks and fields which evoked a painful feeling of absence. The absence was augmented by comfort and support from peers and the humbling ability to walk through the space with survivors to learn from their testimony. However, the experience would not have been whole without the strong use of narrative and contextualization provided in the education by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum Center and the staff we had on the MOL. To better understand the role of education and how a nation tries to reconcile with a fraught past, I took my passion from the MOL trip and visited Poland again during a study abroad program in college the following year. I took the experience of the MOL trip and applied it to my studies of how Germany and Poland reconcile the memory of the Holocaust through education and memorialization. Staying in Oswiecim, where Auschwitz-Birkenau is located, helped me understand more fully the role pedagogy in education, as Keller commented, helps to build understanding and reconciliation with the past to ensure that “never again” reins absolute.
Paralleling Keller’s experience at the slavery museum, I felt a call to action when I left Poland after the March of the Living and again when I studied abroad. It was a discovery in terms of sense of self, belonging, and meaning not only to Judaism, but to Israel and preserving the history for the next generation to bear witness. Keller noticed the same call expressed in a tour group of young African American students that took to heart the moving mission of the museum. The article by Keller is his call to recognize and draw parallels to how America may learn valuable lessons from Germany, Poland, or even Rwanda in reckoning with the past centuries late.
While the two atrocities mentioned have different context and history, they both speak to the call for “never again.” We serve as stewards to the next generation, as the phrase L’dor Vador emphasizes. Echoing a note left at the slave museum, fostering and encouraging the movement to provide enriching educational experiences, whether through the March of the Living or a slave museum, will help ensure that the future generation knows and will not forget the past.
To learn more about the March of the Living program, click HERE.